High-Level Thoughts

One of the three pillars of stoic writing, Discourses is interesting since Epictetus was a freed slave. Useful aphorisms and quotes as always with the stoics.

Summary Notes

“And yet, while there is only the one thing we can care for and devote ourselves to, we choose instead to care about and attach ourselves to a score of others: to our bodies, to our property, to our family, friends and slaves. And, being attached to many things, we are weighed down and dragged along with them.”

“Make the best use of what is in our power, and treat the rest in accordance with its nature. And what is its nature? However God decides.”

“Man, the rational animal, can put up with anything except what seems to him irrational; whatever is rational is tolerable.”

“Which is why education has no goal more important than bringing our preconception of what is reasonable and unreasonable in alignment with nature.”

“Because you think of yourself as no more than a single thread in the robe, whose duty it is to conform to the mass of people – just as a single white thread seemingly has no wish to clash with the remainder of the garment. But I aspire to be the purple stripe, that is, the garment’s brilliant hem. However small a part it may be, it can still manage to make the garment as a whole attractive. Don’t tell me, then, ‘Be like the rest,’ because in that case I cannot be the purple stripe.”

“If a man objects to truths that are all too evident, it is no easy task finding arguments that will change his mind. This is proof neither of his own strength nor of his teacher’s weakness. When someone caught in an argument hardens to stone, there is just no more reasoning with them.”

“Now that you know all this, come and appreciate the resources you have, and when that is done, say, ‘Bring on whatever difficulties you like, Zeus; I have resources and a constitution that you gave me by means of which I can do myself credit whatever happens.’ But no. There you sit, worrying that certain events might happen, already upset and in a state about your present circumstances. So then you reproach the gods.”

“‘Be confident in everything outside the will, and cautious in everything under the will’s control.’”

“Whenever externals are more important to you than your own integrity, then be prepared to serve them the remainder of your life.”

“Model yourself on card players. The chips don’t matter, and the cards don’t matter; how can I know what the deal will be? But making careful and skilful use of the deal – that’s where my responsibility begins. So in life our first job is this, to divide and distinguish things into two categories: externals I cannot control, but the choices I make with regard to them I do control. Where will I find good and bad? In me, in my choices. Don’t ever speak of ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘advantage’ or ‘harm’, and so on, of anything that is not your responsibility.”

“When you can’t resist sex with someone, don’t think of it as a temporary setback; you’ve fed your weakness and made it harder to uproot. It is inevitable that continuous behaviour of any one kind is going to instil new habits and tendencies, while steadily confirming old ones.”

“It will even do to socialize with men of good character, in order to model your life on theirs, whether you choose someone living or someone from the past.”

“Just pay attention to the way you behave and you will discover the school of philosophy you really belong to. You’ll discover that the majority of you are Epicureans, a few Peripatetics but these grown soft.”

“Surrounded as we are by such people – so confused, so ignorant of what they’re saying and of whatever faults they may or may not have, where those faults came from and how to get rid of them – I think we too should make a habit of asking ourselves, ‘Could it be that I’m one of them too? What illusion about myself do I entertain? How do I regard myself – as another wise man, as someone with perfect self-control? Do I, too, ever make that boast about being prepared for whatever may happen? If I don’t know something, am I properly aware that I don’t know it? Do I come to a teacher as ready to submit to his instruction as if it issued from an oracle? Or am I one of those little snots who attends school for the sole purpose of memorizing its doctrines and becoming familiar with books previously unknown to me, so that I can lecture them to others?”

“It is inevitable if you enter into relations with people on a regular basis, either for conversation, dining or simple friendship, that you will grow to be like them, unless you can get them to emulate you. Place an extinguished piece of coal next to a live one, and either it will cause the other one to die out, or the live one will make the other reignite. Since a lot is at stake, you should be careful about fraternizing with non-philosophers in these contexts; remember that if you consort with someone covered in dirt you can hardly avoid getting a little grimy yourself.”

“Freedom is not achieved by satisfying desire, but by eliminating it. Assure yourself of this by expending as much effort on these new ambitions as you did on those illusive goals: work day and night to attain a liberated frame of mind.”

“So choose: either regain the love of your old friends by reverting to your former self or remain better than you once were and forfeit their affection.”

“Just keep in mind: the more we value things outside our control, the less control we have. And among things outside our control is not only access to, but relief from, public office; not just work, but leisure too.”

“It is not events that disturb people, it is their judgements concerning them.”

“If someone succeeds in provoking you, realize that your mind is complicit in the provocation. Which is why it is essential that we not respond impulsively to impressions; take a moment before reacting, and you will find it is easier to maintain control.”

“Keep the prospect of death, exile and all such apparent tragedies before you every day – especially death – and you will never have an abject thought, or desire anything to excess.”

“If you’re wrong to do it, then you should shrink from doing it altogether; but if you’re right, then why worry how people will judge you?”

“Never identify yourself as a philosopher or speak much to non-philosophers about your principles; act in line with those principles. At a dinner party, for instance, don’t tell people the right way to eat, just eat the right way.”

“Finally decide that you are an adult who is going to devote the rest of your life to making progress. Abide by what seems best as if it were an inviolable law. When faced with anything painful or pleasurable, anything bringing glory or disrepute, realize that the crisis is now, that the Olympics have started, and waiting is no longer an option; that the chance for progress, to keep or lose, turns on the events of a single day. That’s how Socrates got to be the person he was, by depending on reason to meet his every challenge. You’re not yet Socrates, but you can still live as if you want to be him.”

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